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Wellstone says special ed shorted

Senator speaks at Rochester forum

By Matthew Stolle

mstolle@postbulletin.com

U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone was in Rochester Wednesday to offer his take on a recently passed education bill that requires schools to test students in grades three through eight.

Wellstone, who voted against the bill, focused his criticisms less on what the bill contained than on what it lacked: Specifically, a commitment to special education.

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"The big issue here is that I think the federal government needs to live up to its commitment to (special education)," Wellstone said.

Wellstone made his comments during a taping of "Connections," an educational show hosted by Mark Shellinger, superintendent of Rochester Public Schools, that airs on cable Channel 22.

The two-term senator was in Rochester days after President Bush signed legislation that could tie a school's federal funding to standardized tests.

Schools with persistently low test scores would get extra money, but low-achieving poor students could use part of it for tutoring or transportation to other public schools.

Schools that fail to perform over six years could be closed, then reopened with new teachers and administrators.

As he has previously, Wellstone expressed deep reservations about what he called the "mad rush" toward more testing.

"We all want there to be accountability. Nobody would run away from that," he said. "But there's confusion about accountability and standardized tests being all one and the same thing, and they're not."

But Wellstone also noted that the law's provisions call for a gradual implementation of testing. No state, he said, would have to start testing until 2005-2006. Moreover, schools would not be judged by the tests results of a single year but of three years.

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Wellstone also took questions from the audience. One came from Lane Trisko, a senior at Century High School, who wanted to know why the federal government, in his opinion, failed to adequately fund special education.

Trisko said his believes law requires that the federal government fund 40 percent of special education costs, but it actually funds less than half that. Districts, in turn, are forced to fund special education programs by drawing from their general funds.

Wellstone said that, in the most recent discussion about special education, the main hurdle was opposition from the White House, which argued for a thorough re-examination of the law before providing full funding.

Wellstone said that even when he and other colleagues agreed to such an examination, so long as full funding was provided at the end of the process, it still wasn't possible to reach agreement.

Wellstone also said that he believed the whole focus on testing was a form of teacher-bashing.

"Testing …; assumes much more is going wrong than is going right," he said.

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